The Theory of Knowledge over Time
May 6, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

Is there a theory or law (formal or otherwise) that postulates that given enough time, "truth" or "knowledge" is more likely to be understood?

There seems to be a theory for every tendency--such as Moore's Law (computing) or Godwin's Law (Internet Discussions). It seems sort of obvious to me that time generally leads to increased likelihood of truth becoming apparent.

Although the world was believed to be flat, given enough time, humans would eventually come to the conclusion that the world is round. This is an example that supports the "law" for which I am searching.
posted by verevi to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know of a particular person after whom the theory has been named, but the idea that truth will triumph over falsehood in the long run is most famously associated with John Stuart Mill's and John Milton's ("who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter") defenses of freedom of speech.

Frederick Schauer has a short(ish), readable article discussing those theories (and arguing they are wrong) in the latest issue of the UCLA Law Review.
posted by willbaude at 8:31 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if this constitutes as theory, but John Stuart Mill wrote in "On Liberty" that the advantage of truth over untruth is that truth will eventually win out. That is to say, while both truth and untruth fade in and out of public consciousness, it is the truth that will eventually be accepted and untruth. The catch is that society has to be in a place where it is able to accept and assimilate that truth.

This is all assuming that there is a such thing as "truth" or "knowledge", which itself may be a stretch.
posted by Geppp at 8:31 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ahh, willbaude beat me to the punch.
posted by Geppp at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2010

Aha, I found the passage:
"The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it."
posted by Geppp at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is there a theory or law (formal or otherwise) that postulates that given enough time, "truth" or "knowledge" is more likely to be understood?

I think it's more accurate (though less profound) to say that time tends to affect knowledge. Some knowledge, such as an-understanding-of-physical-laws tends to improve over time. Other sorts of knowledge, such as what it felt like to see an original production of a Shakespeare play in the original Globe Theatre, tends to decrease.

Same with skills. We are getting better and better at building logic circuits and rockets. We are getting worse and worse at building Trebuchets and dancing fox trots.
posted by grumblebee at 9:05 AM on May 6, 2010

Your example, and the whole concept of eternal truths, implies to me that you're seeking scientific and empirical truths (as opposed to say, spiritual truths). And on this topic, I think that Thomas Kuhn (wikipedia) is a good resource, since he was one of the first philosophers of science.

I take one of Kuhn's most important parts of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to be an account of the fact that science actually has directional progress, which differentiates it from other fields. Sciences by definition move (in fits and starts) toward something which is a *better* understanding of the world, where in other fields of human inquiry and human effort this is less the case (the canonical example being the arts; painting today is different than painting in the 1800s or the 1500s or the 800s, but that difference is not better-ness or "progress"... at least in this argument). This search is what makes a science a science.

To return to your question for a moment, you claim that "It seems sort of obvious to me that time generally leads to increased likelihood of truth becoming apparent".

And I'd ask you, do you think that the truth of 'painting' is more apparent now? Or the truth of 'the human-being-as-individual or human-being-as-citizen' is more truthie now than it was in Plato's day? This is why philosophy isn't a science. Our truths about the physical universe in contrast are more true now than in Plato's day (I think you'll agree), since those truths were uncovered through scientific practices. To this pile, I'll add political science -- Do you think we know about the truth of people living together in groups than we did in Plato's "Republic" days? If so, then political science is a science; if not, then we'll it's still worthy but it's not going to get us to the truth.

Through the rest of the book, Kuhn goes on to get into the details of how exactly sciences progress. Because progress is not linear. And it's not an accretion model (a snowball), where every scientific bit of new truth or deeper truth that is uncovered is added to the snowball. Science sometimes needs to throw away a whole lot of things (the aether, the plum-pudding model of the atom, and soon I hope that 'dark matter' and also 'dark energy' will join the grand discard pile, since they're total shit from where I'm sitting (note: NOTAPHYSICIST-IST)). And he's got a great account of scientific revolutions that resulted in the throwing away of a lot of progress. And he gets into how and why scientist's very worldviews are changed by their research.

I don't know if there's a law that comes out of this, other than the law that "things that seek and actually make progress toward truer and truer depictions of the world are sciences" (and those that don't aren't). This definition has been very helpful to me, but it's a kind of tautological statement, so might not be where your question is going.
posted by zpousman at 9:07 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think William James, one of the foremost Pragmatist philosophers, says something to this effect. From the wikipedia entry:
In What Pragmatism Means, James writes that the central point of his own doctrine of truth is, in brief, that "Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The 'facts' themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them."
I take this to mean that the facts exist, and as one acquires those facts into one's beliefs, truth is created. Don't know if I'm interpreting that right.
posted by sarahnade at 10:58 AM on May 6, 2010

To the extent that Godwin's Law ("As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.") and Moore's Law ("in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.") are really laws and not merely descriptions of trends in very narrow fields, then a law similar to that which you describe could be postulated.

veveri's law: time generally leads to increased likelihood of truth becoming apparent.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:55 PM on May 6, 2010

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